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Opinion | Biden’s Democracy Conference Is About Much More Than Democracy

“This is the operating system for the administration’s vision for how it thinks about the world now,” Joshua Meltzer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who focuses on trade, told me.

Mr. Biden, who has been promising to hold this conference since he was a candidate, couches the new threats in old Cold War terminology — as the “free world” coming together to push back against fascism and authoritarianism.

Of course, there’s plenty of risk in framing the challenge in those terms. First, there’s the awkwardness of acknowledging that many of the countries on Team Democracy have been democratically challenged in recent years, starting with the United States itself. Almost no corner of the world has been left unscathed by the erosion of democratic norms. Poland’s ruling party has targeted its independent judiciary and is battling the European Union over what it means to uphold the rule of law.

India, the world’s largest democracy, was downgraded to “partly free” by Freedom House with the continued silencing of dissent and rise of Hindu nationalism and attacks on Muslim citizens. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has targeted journalists who have called out corruption and disinformation. India, Poland and the Philippines are all expected at Mr. Biden’s democracy summit. Of course they are. We need them on our team.

Once we acknowledge that no democracy is perfect and that all countries sit somewhere on a spectrum between “free” and “unfree,” the dividing line between “us” and “them” gets muddier. In a rare op-ed essay, the Russian and Chinese ambassadors in Washington argued that the United States has no right to sit in judgment over which nations are democracies and which nations are not. They argued that their countries should be considered democracies too. After all, Chinese citizens can join the Communist Party and participate in some deliberations.

“What China has is an extensive, whole-process socialist democracy,” China’s ambassador, Qin Gang, and Russia’s ambassador, Anatoly Antonov, wrote in The National Interest. “It reflects the people’s will, suits the country’s realities, and enjoys strong support from the people.”

While those arguments are not particularly convincing, they did make a point that rang true. Carving up the world into “us” and “them” could complicate efforts to solve other existential problems facing both the free and unfree: climate change, pandemics and mass migration.

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